“What is the purpose of a museum collection?”
In many ways, the issues Erik has raised around this question reflect a moment at which our approaches to accessing, organizing, and thinking about cultural material have undergone a massive shift. While scholarship and interpretation have traditionally been dominated by monologues, linear narratives, and institutional authority, we now increasingly look to dialogue, hyperlinking (just look at Wikipedia), and projects that emphasize participation and transparency as models for exchanging knowledge and cultural experiences. With so many of these emergent values stemming from web culture and its broad implications, where do museum collections – which consist of physical objects, linked to and housed in highly specific physical spaces – fit in? Where should they fit in?
As someone who engages with collections in many ways – as a graduate student, as a museum visitor, as a writer, as an intern or freelancer – and is on the younger side within the much-discussed millennial cohort, I find myself considering this question from all kinds of angles. Erik has highlighted several angles that have loomed large in museum discourse lately, such as controversies over selling or renting out objects in collections and movements toward programs- and exhibitions-based, rather than strictly collections-based, models for museum practice. Ultimately, I think an institution’s navigation of these difficult issues is closely tied to the framework of networks – a concept with deep roots both in web culture and in the ways in which collections have always operated.
Collections are groups of networked objects, all of which have affinities with other objects, connections to people and places, and stories to tell. Some of these stories take place within the museum; others extend far beyond the walls. When thinking about this, I’m drawn to one of the most dramatic examples of a collection that makes up the “heart of a museum’s identity,” to use Erik’s phrase: the eclectic collection at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which famously cannot be moved from the display arrangement established by the museum’s namesake. While these stipulations transcend standard museum ethical limitations, the Gardner presents an interesting metaphor for the role of collections: in 2012, the museum gave the “palace” that houses the collection a new neighbor, a glass-encased building that (to quote Wikipedia, like a true millennial) “includes spaces for visitor services, concerts, special exhibitions, and education and landscape programs, furthering Isabella Gardner’s legacy in art, music, and horticulture while reducing 21st-century strain on the collection and galleries.” “21st-century strain” here refers to architectural issues, but the space responds to the cultural aspects of “21st-century strain” on collections and collecting institutions as well. Inside Mrs. Gardner’s “palace,” her collection remains in place, allowing visitors to engage with these works and the story of their collector. Just across the way, however, visitors can try their hand at art making, peruse materials that offer new contexts for works in the collection, and engage with exhibitions produced by contemporary artists who draw from the Gardner’s collections through the museum’s residency program – all ways of developing the network of stories that surrounds the collection. The new building’s transparent walls simultaneously allow visitors to gain a new vantage point on a place-bound collection and to look out into the world beyond this collection’s home.
I’m certainly not proposing that every museum rush out to build gleaming new wings, but the process the building represents, one centered on interpreting an institutional mission, has relevance for nearly all museums and collecting institutions. Of course, institutional missions provide core values and guideposts, perhaps never more than in times when difficult decisions are needed – it’s mission that lies at the heart of an institution. In a 21st-century context, a question that might be asked in connection with considerations of museums’ missions might be: “Where do we fit into various networks?” or, more specifically, “What kinds of interactions between our objects and the wider networks they belong to will best support our mission?”There’s no one-fits-size-all answer to this question. In various museum contexts, collections can open incredible experiences: in a historic house museum, a collection can let us see life through the eyes of someone who lived generations ago; in a modern art museum, we can come face-to-face with the products of diverse making processes and consider these processes in new ways; in an encyclopedic museum, we can get glimpses of vast swaths of the world within one building.
Of course, collections aren’t the sum total of museum practice, and exhibitions that bring objects from various institutions into conversation, artist-driven installations that activate spaces, innovative public programs, and other initiatives open up experiences that speak to the core of museum missions in exciting ways. Already, institutions approach their collections in a huge range of ways – some, like the recently updated Cooper Hewitt, make a point of showing their collections’ place in wider networks and of encouraging a playful approach. Others bring their collection objects into contact with broader stories through artist interventions or projects that mix historical and contemporary, or they provide digital access to the often-unseen processes and objects that aren’t on display in galleries. And, of course, still others eschew collections-focused practice in favor of mounting ambitious exhibitions, providing spaces for artists to work publicly, or engaging publics in participatory experiences and programs. In the hugely diverse networks that comprise the museum field and the publics it serves, there’s room for a range of approaches, and museums should have degrees of both freedom and responsibility to think deeply, honestly, and holistically about the approach that will allow them to best serve their mission. For organizations under pressure, like DIA and the Delaware Art Museum, this is of course particularly relevant.
When they’re doing their jobs well, institutional leaders have deep understandings of their missions and the particular publics they serve. It’s these understandings that should shape the way one applies a mission and a collection: for a community-based museum that serves a public that has more access to school tours than to fast internet, for example, access to objects and to cultural experiences may mean something very different than it does for a large museum that has a connected global audience. In many ways, the purpose of a museum collection is to open: to open connections, open exploration, open deep engagement, open learning, open dialogue, open discovery. To make sure they are truly fulfilling their missions, it’s up to museums to think through the pathways they can open, through collections or otherwise, within the networks that operate both within and beyond museum walls.
Laura Mitchell is Plinth’s editor. Beyond Plinth, she is a researcher, writer, and M.A. candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University.